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After a year of protests, companies are seeing bias as not just wrong, but bad for business

Demonstrators call for justice for George Floyd in

Demonstrators call for justice for George Floyd in Roosevelt last summer. The nationwide protests got the attention of all America, including those in boardrooms. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Long Island firms that offer corporate diversity training say demand for their services has skyrocketed since the death of George Floyd.

A West Babylon consulting company dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion said bookings have increased 50% in the past year.

A trainer at a Huntington Station-based nonprofit focused on gender violence, health equity, racial bias and systemic racism said her workload has more than doubled.

And a Melville consulting group created a diversity, equity and inclusion divisionto handle the high volume of inquiries it started receiving from clients seeking training and assessment in the months after Floyd’s death.

What local firms are experiencing is mirrored nationally.

The murder of Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer "didn’t just spark nationwide protests, motivating thousands to go outside, to take to the streets," said Barry Cross, 69, of Elsie Y. Cross & Associates Inc., a 44-year-old Philadelphia-based diversity training firm. "What it also did was create this sobering moment that forced people to look inside, look within, people in boardrooms, in business, government agencies, nonprofits, and in all types of workplaces, were forced to take a good, hard look in the mirror," he said.

"It made companies reevaluate the inequities within the walls of their own organizations, reexamine their treatment of employees of color, and suddenly made them want to spring into action, to do something," Cross said. It made many of them want to put their money where their mouth is, too, he said.

Offering diversity and inclusion training can be costly. On average, 12 hours of online training can cost about $400 per employee; a half-hour in-person class for 20 employees can cost about $1,600, and lengthier, in-person programs with more employees can cost upward of $10,000.

According to a July 2020 survey by Washington, D.C.-based research firm Clutch, 49% of workers said their companies directly addressed the news of Floyd’s death, through public statements, internal discussions or donations. The same survey noted 76% of workers believed racism was a problem in American workplaces.

Demand for experts well-versed in addressing issues such as racism and implicit bias was already on the rise across a range of industries nationwide. But Floyd’s murder, along with the earlier deaths of other Black Americans killed in similar situations, Cross said, helped give the already-growing trend a boost.

He said his firm had to partner with another Black-owned company to keep up with demand.

In its heyday, the firm his mother founded in 1977 boasted more than 100 diversity trainers on its payroll and held national contracts with large companies, Cross said. "But when Obama became president, that pretty much drove a stake through the heart of our company," he said.

"The media suddenly announced we were ‘post-racial,’ and everything changed. Calls for trainings stopped coming in. It all just dried up," he said.

"Everything’s changed again," he said. "With everything going on in the country now, racially, politically, the idea of ‘post-racial’ seems so silly ... but this renewed interest [in diversity training], it’s a good thing."

People ‘started listening’

Aaron Johnson, 39, an African American studies and global history teacher at Bay Shore High School, who said he’s the only Black male teacher in the school, finally turned his longtime passion for racial equity into a business in 2018, with the launch of Elevated Leadership Perspectives, LLC.

The diversity, equity and inclusion training and consulting business was motivated by the same desire that inspires Johnson’s lessons inside the classroom: to help create a more equitable and sustainable society.

Without a doubt, Johnson said, since the killing of George Floyd, the demand for his services has grown.

"The phenomenon of the ‘George Floyd moment’ is that it really opened up a forum for discussion, which was not there before," he said.

"Many people, mostly white people, who before were oblivious to the fact that they had been living a parallel but completely different existence than ours, than that of Black Americans, started paying attention, started listening."

In recent weeks, Johnson’s been busy with this new audience. He’s partnered with local politicians to deliver speeches at in-person events such as anti-racism and anti-hate rallies. And he has worked with clients in Manhattan and on the Island, from investment banks to BOCES programs, delivering hourlong virtual training sessions on topics such as racism and implicit bias to groups of about three dozen employees at a time via Zoom.

His diversity trainings involve "a lot of dialogue," he said. "I’m talking, but I’m also listening. I’m asking, ‘Who’s being represented? How is your job creating an equitable space for you right now?’ What are some of the steps they’re taking, and what are the measurable outcomes?"

Skits from the NBC comedy show "Saturday Night Live" and clippings from Johnson’s made-up newspaper "The Johnson Times" — aimed at helping participants pinpoint biases and stereotypes they may have about people who belong to different racial groups — are also incorporated into his presentations, Johnson said.

A before-and-after shift

Hellen Bangura, who until recently worked as the chair of global inclusion and diversity at Manhattan-based financial services company State Street, about a month ago enlisted Johnson’s services for an hourlong in-person workshop with 30 of the company’s employees, from first-year associates to senior level financial advisers.

"His approach was very refreshing, it was thought-provoking and not one-sided," she said. "From start to finish, he kept everyone in the room engaged, which is exactly what companies should be looking to do right now, engage employees, start these dialogues."

For large corporations, diversity and inclusion efforts can be divided into two time periods, Bangura said: "Before George Floyd and after George Floyd."

"Prior, it was nice to have ... We do it and ‘look at us, we’re diverse and it’s nice of us,’" she said.

"But post? There’s a lot more intention now. It has to be proven. What’s your strategy to recruit diverse hires? Do you have people of color in management roles? How much are they getting paid in comparison to their white counterparts? And by the way, show us your metrics."

Another difference?

An increased emphasis on the "equity and inclusion" part of the DEI equation, she said, which "is usually the more complex part."

Higher-ups at large corporations, Bangura said, would be remiss to think it’s possible to achieve "true and lasting diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace through a one-time training session once a year."

"Where we’re at now, that’s just not enough," she said. "It has to be an ongoing effort that takes on many forms." Companies like State Street, Bangura said, usually invest in recurring events.

And efforts must expand beyond the training room, she said.

"What does that mean and what does that look like? Well, that can vary from company to company, but here’s an example: Hiring a golf coach to teach female employees how to play."

In the finance world, high-profile deals are often closed on the green, she said.

"It’s where networking happens, schmoozing," Bangura said.

"But for a long time, access to the golf course has been restricted to certain types of people, right? The bigwigs, usually older, white, male ... not everyone’s had the opportunity of learning or playing a sport like golf. Well, at the next golf outing, it was like, ‘ok good, now we’re all here.’ "

‘None of this is new’

Vanessa Miller, a trainer with Huntington-based nonprofit the Women’s Diversity Network — an organization that advocates "to break down barriers for improved inclusion for all" — said since Floyd’s death her work has more than doubled.

Trainings led by Miller, which include an array of activities such as videos, worksheets, crossword puzzles, role playing and anonymous polls taken by participants, range from hourslong virtual presentations to full-day in-person events. A two-hour training with about 20 employees can cost about $1,500, she said.

Miller said she also saw a "huge surge" in business during the recent nationwide spike of violent anti-Asian hate incidents.

"Any person of color will tell you, however, that none of this is new," said Miller, a 20-year training and development professional who has focused her work on diversity issues since 2015.

"These issues we’re beginning to tackle now ... racism, implicit bias, discrimination, inequities at work and out of work ... have been issues for us way before George Floyd."

Miller said she worries that interest won’t be sustained. "Will all these efforts then get pushed to the back burner?"

‘Challenging the status quo’

It’s possible but "improbable," said DuWayne Gregory, director of diversity, equity and inclusion training at McBride Consulting & Business Development Group in Mineola. "This is more than a moment."

Gregory, a former Suffolk County legislator who was the legislature’s first black presiding officer, joined the company about a year and a half ago.Since then, he said, Long Island companies have accounted for about 40% of McBride’s diversity training business, with the remaining 60% coming from Manhattan firms. No Long Island clients were willing to be interviewed for this story.

Gregory said most clients, "nervous about how their actions may be misjudged or mischaracterized," require a nondisclosure agreement as part of contract negotiations early on.

Companies are wary that inquiring about or hiring diversity training services "may be perceived [by the public] as a sign that there’s an internal problem [with diversity] when that might not necessarily be the case, he said.

"Millennials, younger people, the new workforce, they are in many ways leading the charge, pushing for more diversity, pushing for more equity, more inclusion, in society and in the workplace," Gregory said.

"They’re challenging the status quo and saying, this is what we want, this is what we require ... so for many companies, it’s really become about ‘if we want to be competitive, attract top talent, ingratiate ourselves with our consumer base, we need to get on board with this.’"

The results of a September 2020 survey from Marcum LLP and Hofstra University’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business indicate Gregory may be right: 54.8% of respondents — middle market CEOs — said increasing racial diversity and inclusion is a stated top strategic priority for their companies.

At companies where diversity and inclusion is not a stated priority, approximately 19% are considering their policies in these areas, and 31% anticipate doing so.

‘The most profitable thing to do’

"Which is just wonderful to hear," said Natalie Burke, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit CommonHealth Action, an organization dedicated to achieving health equity that has performed diversity training for the past 10 years.

"But make no mistake about it, for the most part this isn’t all happening because it’s suddenly the ‘right thing’ to do, but because for a lot of businesspeople, it’s finally clicking that it’s also the smartest and most profitable thing to do."

"If you look at the data," she said. "It’s crystal clear." Burke referenced the findings of a 2015 study by McKinsey Research that showed a strong link between financial performance and diversity.

Companies with greater ethnic and racial diversity among staff performed 35% better than companies whose demographics matched the national average, and companies with greater gender diversity performed 15% better than those with less.

A follow-up study in 2018 found that ethnically and racially diverse companies had 43% higher profits.

Even so, Burke said, whether a company’s efforts are financially motivated or inspired by other goals — to align its practices with company missions and values, to meet plans for growth, comply with certain regulations or even, for some, to simply ‘check a box’ — the bottom line is "it’s not going to pass."

"This is it," she said. "There’s no turning back."

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